Global Survey of Tropical Biological Field Stations

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Biological field stations (BFSs) are typically remote sites that support basic and applied research on natural ecosystems. They can range from simple tent camps with few amenities to elaborate facilities with extensive services and state-of-the-art laboratories. These sites may support biophysical research as well as research on the human dimensions of resource use. Stations may also support training activities for scientists, land managers, and students.

Research at BFSs provides important inventory and monitoring information—key ingredients to understanding how ecosystems function and how they are affected by human and natural perturbations. Research may focus exclusively on natural systems or on a mix of natural and managed (e.g., agricultural) systems. Study sites range from lush forests to arid deserts, marine environments to alpine ecosystems.

The fundamental role that BFSs serve in supporting research places them at the forefront of efforts to understand and protect global ecosystems. Nevertheless, there are few if any comprehensive data on the condition and trends of these stations, and research identifying the myriad challenges and opportunities they face is scant. Even data as basic as the number of stations in operation are lacking.

The paucity of basic data about BFSs is particularly troubling in the tropics, where forests are estimated to contain half the world's species (Wilson 1992). Deforestation pressures and the loss of biodiversity highlight the urgent need for research that inventories, monitors, and describes these rich and diverse systems (Costanza et al. 1997). Also needed is research that addresses the underlying human causes of resource degradation and species loss. Indeed, most tropical countries are developing nations that are home to “the world's richest ecosystems and…poorest people” (Bromley 1995), where human needs and ecological protection clash daily (McNeely and Miller 1984, McNeely 1994). Responding to these threats is particularly difficult in the tropics because of the remote location of many field stations, limited infrastructure, and chronically insufficient and unstable funding (Dixon and Sherman 1990).

This article presents the results of our worldwide survey of tropical BFSs. The purpose of the survey was to gather basic information on the range of facilities and services offered by tropical BFSs, the research and scientists they host, and the roles these stations fill in facilitating the management and protection of significant natural areas, such as national parks. During the survey we also gathered economic information on station fees, funding sources and expenditures, and historic and expected financial trends.

The survey yielded information that can assist governmental agencies, professional societies, nongovernmental organizations, and scientists in assessing the conditions, trends, and challenges facing tropical BFSs, as well as help station personnel better manage their facilities. Moreover, the conditions and trends of BFSs reported here present a first look at the institutions that help or hinder the study, understanding, and management of diverse tropical ecosystems. Thus, the survey serves as an important measure of the ability to create ecological knowledge and ultimately, through application of that knowledge, ensure resource health.